Music Festival's Visa Troubles Are a 'Wake-Up Call' for UK Live Music Industry, Say Execs

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Festival goers at WOMAD Festival 2018 on July 28, 2018 in Charlton Park, United Kingdom. 

WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel recently blasted U.K. foreign policy after visa issues stopped a number of international acts from playing the festival.

A humiliating and hostile visa entry system is preventing a growing number of international acts from performing in the U.K., placing the future health and diversity of the festival market at risk, warn senior figures in the live industry. 

The issue has been put under the spotlight after three acts scheduled to appear at this year's World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival -- Sabry Mosbah from Tunisia, Wazimbo from Mozambique and members of Niger's Tal National -- were refused entry to the U.K., according to organizers. 

Another act booked for the event -- which took place in Wiltshire, 26-29 July -- arrived 24 hours after their scheduled performance having also experienced administrative visa hold ups. Their difficulties led founder Peter Gabriel to criticize the British government for creating the "growing perception" that foreign artists were not welcome in the U.K.

"The right to travel for work, for education and even for pleasure is increasingly being restricted, often along racial and religious lines." wrote the former Genesis singer in a letter published in British newspaper The Times on Wednesday. 

"Some of these artists no longer want to come because of the difficulty and cost involved, as well as the delays with visas and the fear that they will not be welcome in our country," continued Gabriel, who co-founded WOMAD in 1982. 

WOMAD director Chris Smith tells Billboard the current visa process for international artists wishing to perform in the U.K. was "either not fit for purpose or just designed to cause as much difficulty as possible." As a result, this year saw three additional acts turn down invitations to perform, citing restrictive border controls.  

"For the first time, they're actually saying, 'We're not doing this.' And that is a huge worry," says Smith. "They said, 'Why would we put ourselves through this? If you've got a life somewhere else, the assumption that you're going to come to the U.K. and want to stay is insulting and I think that's how some of these artists felt." 

The number of acts choosing not to go through the hassle of applying for a U.K. visa is "a trickle at this point," he acknowledges, "but next year three artists could grow to six. The year after it could be 12 and then we have a real problem. Artists talk to each other, so you can see how this can quickly build up a head of steam." 

Smith says that while visa issues are a common occurrence for touring artists around the world, the U.K.'s border controls are becoming increasingly obstructive when compared to some the other international markets WOMAD festivals take place, such as Spain, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.   

"Without a doubt it is harder to get into the U.K. than it is to get into other countries," he laments. "In other countries, the authorities bend over backwards to actually solve any problems that we may come across. Here you don't get the support. It's a premium cost phone line to an answering machine. We very often have staff sitting in the office making very expensive phone calls because the artists simply can't afford to." 

He adds, "When you have your prime minister saying she wants to create a hostile environment for immigration, you have to assume that part of that is actually about being hostile and finding reasons [not to let people enter the country] -- whether it's racial or religious or any other grounds." 

Although WOMAD festival is the most high-profile U.K. event in 2018 to encounter visa difficulties, others in the sector say they are having to negotiate increasingly complicated processes when bringing overseas artists to perform in the country. 

 

Problems commonly cited include visas being processed by just a small handful of U.K. hubs, as opposed to British consulates, visa officers often having little or no knowledge of the live music business and the absence of a point-person in the Home Office for the entertainment sector. An added complication for artists based in Africa or the Middle East is that the requirement to attend Visa Application Centers in person often involves long and costly journeys across borders. For example, musicians from Mali have to travel to Senegal just to lodge their applications.

"The visa process is not user-friendly," says Steve Richard of U.K.-based T&S Immigration Services Ltd, which handles visa services for touring artists and the entertainment industry. 

"The most common complaint is that the band, or their sponsor, can't speak to anyone if the application is taking too long, or if one of the passports hasn't come back in time. There is no proper line of communication; it's often impossible to find out where the application actually is," he states. 

Richard calls the British visa system "a bit of a shambles" and says he has requested a meeting with immigration officials to voice his concerns. 

A Home Office spokesperson defended its visa processes is a statement, saying, "We welcome artists and musicians coming to the U.K. from non-EEA countries to perform." According to the Home Office, 99 percent "of non-settlement visa applications were processed within 15 days and the average processing time in 2017 was just under eight days."

The difficulties that WOMAD experienced this year have, however, shined a light on what a number of people in the live industry fear could become a bigger issue post-Brexit.  

"It's worrying that the Home Office seems to be imposing difficult visa criteria for musicians from some overseas countries," said a spokesperson for the U.K. Musicians' Union. "Music should have no borders, and we've always been – artistically and culturally – a very welcoming country. If these difficulties continue our reputation as a country that embraces all arts and culture will be severely damaged." 

Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), calls WOMAD's recent visa troubles "both absurd and extremely troubling."  

"This is a serious threat to the vital future health, diversity and inclusiveness of the U.K. festival sector," he tells Billboard

"A visa frequently takes weeks to obtain, costs hundreds of pounds and involves complex and in some cases seemingly humiliating application processes. Some artists will inevitably turn their backs on playing in the U.K., with the situation at WOMAD illustrating that this is already happening. This should be a wake-up call," warns Reed, calling on the Home Office to review the situation.  

As for the future of WOMAD, its director, Smith, says he can envisage having to place members of his team in European cities like Paris or Rome to help smooth artists' entry into the U.K. if something isn't done. "The music industry and the whole cultural sector needs to speak with one voice and take this up at the highest political level," he states. 

"I don't believe it was the intention of any changes in immigration law to keep artists out," says Smith, "but a by-product of that process is doing exactly that and we need to urgently find a solution."